Twitter messages feed major news channels
Much of the news about the Mumbai attacks reached the world via Twitter, an internet service which allows people to post brief messages on the web immediately. Twitter's social networking and microblogging site is rapidly developing into a source that is being tapped by mainstream media.
"Hospital update. Shots still being fired. Also Metro cinema next door" "Blood needed at JJ hospital" - "TAJ Hotel and Nariman House ... combat continues"
Messages from Mumbai came filing in on Twitter as the attacks happened. The authors signing with names like "nimishsdll", "mumbaiattack" and "aeropolowoman".
Launched on 1 March 2006, Twitter is fast-growing, its traffic registering a 343 percent year-on-year growth last September, according to figures from Nielsen.
What is Twitter?
The name, a mix of of 'chatter' and 'tweeting', is in fact an apt summary of what Twitter does, but it is difficult to explain.
Once you are registered with the Twitter website, you can do two things: either find people whose messages you want to receive, which enables you to follow what they're doing. Or you can post messages yourself, allowing others to see what you're up to. And you can do both at the same time, which is where the conversation starts.
On its website, Twitter says it is "a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?"
People have been doing just that, talking about their everyday experiences in weblogs (blogs) for a long time. The difference is that Twitter's messages appear instantly, and you don't have to go to a specific website to see them.
Messages can be no more than 140 characters long, which is about as long as the average spoken sentence. They are called 'tweets', and appear on the screen of your computer, or as a message on your cellphone. Its immediacy is similar to instant messenger systems like MSN.
Even Obama does it
And it's not just for computer geeks. "Webhat" informs his readers that he is on his way to Hilversum Station, "grammargirl" talks about the homework she's doing, "ericnuzum" reports he has finished eating dinner.
Businessmen use Twitter to tell the world about their product, gather market information, and talk to employees. Popular musicians tell their fans about what they do during the day.
Even politicians are 'twittering' to their supporters. Barack Obama sent out tweets to his followers during his campaign.
Video above: How to use Twitter
Which takes us to another question: how reliable is Twitter as a news source? It is very tempting for the likes of CNN and other big news organisations to use eyewitness accounts from people on the ground, rather than sending a reporter with a camera team. It's a lot cheaper, and faster. But CNN has its doubts:
"What is clear that although Twitter remains a useful tool for mobilizing efforts and gaining eyewitness accounts during a disaster, the sourcing of most of the news cannot be trusted."
Many Twitterers just repeat headlines they see on local tv, rather than reporting their own observations. Rumours keep being repeated without ever being checked. Journalists say the social networking site can provide some of the basic material, fast and topical, but there is still a need for all those facts and non-facts to be filtered, tied together and put into context.
Twitter has been around for more than two years now. Clearly there are many ways to put Twitter to good use, but it is not the be-all and end-all. In fact, some bloggers resent the constant interruptions by tweets, calling Twitter 'distracting', or something for 18-year-olds. Its incessant chatter adds to the barrage of data, leaving little room for concentration. So like all new technology, Twitter is felt to have its downsides too.